Churches aid police, Latinos in dialogue

Outreach: Officers attending services with the county's Latino population hope to gradually build trust in the police and prevent crime.

October 09, 2002|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Howard police are trying to improve relations with the county's small but growing Latino population through prayer.

During the past several months, police officers have attended services at Latino churches, where they have sung hymns, answered questions and tried to assure residents that police are not interested in deporting or hurting illegal aliens.

Police say the outreach is critically important -- not only to build trust among the county's nearly 7,900 Latinos, but also to help prevent crime. Latinos often are reluctant to report wrongdoing or talk to police because they fear negative consequences, community leaders and police say.

"It's obvious we need to respond more to this community," said Capt. Stephen Prozeralik, who has been attending church services with several of the department's 10 Spanish-speaking officers.

The church outreach campaign began after the killing in late May of a Latino named Antonio Ayala. The goal was to deflate racial tension caused by a rumor circulating among Latinos that a black man had committed the crime.

Many Howard Latinos have complained that they are the targets of black criminals, especially in the Long Reach area.

Police later arrested and charged Ayala's three Latino roommates in the killing, but the rumor "drove home the point we need to do work up front to build relationships within the community ... so people are a little less quick to point the finger at each other," said Chief Wayne Livesay.

Some Latinos have been reluctant to talk to police for fear of being deported or because of memories from their home countries such as El Salvador, where police organized "death squads" that tortured or killed residents.

"They bring that [fear of police] to the United States where they could be deported and then they get more scared," said Jorge Fonseca, pastor of Iglesia Cristiana de Columbia, who has helped organize some of the church meetings.

Police say that they have no interest in deporting residents who are in the country without proper documentation unless they have committed a felony.

"We only care that they get the service they need," Prozeralik said. "We're not going to come back and do follow-up interviews [about their status] or ask them for their green cards."

Many Latinos are even more reluctant to contact police because they are unfamiliar with the U.S. criminal justice system, community leaders and police say.

During a recent meeting at Crossroad Church of the Nazarene in Ellicott City, parishioners asked police what they should do during a traffic accident, whether they could ask for Spanish-language interpreters and whether they could be punished for reporting a crime.

"The difference between South American police and American ones can be very large," said Jose L. Ocasio, pastor of Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal in Owen Brown.

Police hope the visits will spur Latinos to report more crimes and get more involved with the department.

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